Leadbeater’s Possum

At Yellingbo Nature Conservation Area (YNCA) the Lowland Leadbeater’s Possum (LLBP) is found in similar habitat as the Helmeted Honeyeater. The LLBP prefers habitat with dense midstorey of Melaleuca and Leptospermum, and inhabits the Mountain Swamp Gum. It is a Critically Endangered species and is Victoria’s faunal emblem. YNCA is the only place in the world where three of Victoria’s state emblems co-exist. The other faunal state emblem not found in Yellingbo? Weedy Seadragon.

Scientific name

Gymnobelideus leadbeateri

How did it get its name?

The generic name Gymnobelideus means “naked dart” referring to the lack of a flying membrane, and the species name leadbeateri was named after J. Leadbeater who was the taxidermist at the National Museum of Victoria.

What does it look like?

Leadbeater’s Possums are grey to greyish-brown above and paler below with a dark mid-dorsal (along centre of back) stripe. They have an average body length of 15-17cm and a total length (including the tail) of around 33cm. They weigh an average of 100 – 165 grams. It is recognised by its characteristic baseball bat shaped tail, which is narrower at the base.

Habitat

Leadbeater’s Possum are endemic to Victoria, existing nowhere else but the montane ash forests of the Central Highlands, alpine Snow Gum forests between Lake Mountain and Mt. Baw Baw and the Lowland Leadbeater’s Possum at Yellingbo Nature Conservation Area (YNCA). Old hollow trees, dense midstorey of wattles in the ash forests and smooth barked gum trees with loose bark are indicative of the habitat.

The small population at YNCA is in a unique habitat as it is a low-lying Mountain Swamp Gum woodlands.

What are the major threats to the Leadbeater’s Possum?

The Leadbeater’s Possum is most threatened by habitat loss. This includes from industrial logging, salvage logging (logging trees, often those regenerating, after a bushfire), prescribed burns, clearing access roads for fire breaks, and the collapse of old hollow bearing trees.

What is the status of the Leadbeater’s Possum?

It is estimated that there are less than 1000 adult Leadbeater’s Possums (LBP) in the Central Highlands, and less than 40 Lowland Leadbeater’s Possums (LLBP) at Yellingbo Nature Conservation Area.

Leadbeater’s Possum’s are listed as:

Is there a National Recovery Plan for Leadbeater’s Possum?

See below under heading ‘Leadbeater’s Possum timeline’ and 2016. 

What are the breeding habits of the Leadbeater’s Possum?

Leadbeater’s Possums live in colonies of up to 12 animals but only one pair within that colony will breed. Breeding can occur twice a year (spring/summer & autumn/winter) with up to 2 joeys being born.

Nests

Loose bark is wound into a round ball and is used for lining nests in old hollows, or, as in the case of Yellingbo Nature Conservation Area, in nest boxes and sometimes in tree ferns.

What do Leadbeater’s Possums eat?

They are known to eat insects, such as moths, crickets and beetles, and spiders which it claws out from underneath tree bark, or finds hanging from bark strips. Some insects exude a sweet liquid called “honeydew”, which the Leadbeater’s Possum licks off the leaves of trees. It feeds on the gum, nectar and sap of wattle trees and eucalyptus trees. At Yellingbo Nature Conservation Area the Helmeted Honeyeaters feed on sap running from cuts in tree trunks made by the possums.

For more information

Visit Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum website.

 

Leadbeater’s Possum timeline

NB. Names of places and fauna/flora species can change over time. The names under dates are reflective of those used at this time.

1867
Leadbeater’s Possum first described from two specimens collected at the Bass River in south-west Gippsland. The first Helmeted Honeyeater was also described at the same time.

1921
Leadbeater’s Possum presumed to be extinct in the Bass River district owing to extensive vegetation clearance.

1960
Leadbeater’s Possum listed as “certainly, or almost certainly, extinct”.

1961
After 50 years without a confirmed sighting, Leadbeater’s Possum re-discovered by Eric Wilkinson near Marysville in the Montane ash forests of the Victorian Central Highlands.

1971   

On 2nd March Leadbeater’s Possum became Victoria’s mammal faunal emblem.

1973
Leadbeater’s Possum first bred in captivity by naturalist Des Hackett.

1986
Leadbeater’s Possum discovered inhabiting lowland swamp forest at Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve by Ian Smales.

1989
Virginia Thomas conducts her honours thesis on Leadbeater’s Possums (LBP) at Yellingbo. David Lindenmayer collects blood samples from 11 LBPs at Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve.

1995
Dan Harley commences a PhD investigating Leadbeater’s Possum’s life history, population dynamics and conservation at Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve.

2000
Surveys for Leadbeater’s Possums (LBP) in lowland swamp forest at Bunyip State Park commence. The species is not detected. Parks Victoria initiate annual population monitoring of LBPs at Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve (YNCR). Two LBPs taken from YNCR for captive-breeding at Healesville Sanctuary. LBP detected at Buxton Silver Gum Reserve.

2001
Discovery of a single male Leadbeater’s Possum (LBP) along the Woori Yallock Creek section of Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve. Translocation occurs of a single female LBP to the Woori Yallock Creek section of the reserve from a different creek system.

2003
Birgita Hansen commences a PhD into Leadbeater’s Possum (LBP) genetics (including approx 200 samples from Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve). Five LBPs translocated to the Woori Yallock Creek in an attempt to establish three colonies. The effort is unsuccessful.

2004
Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum is formed.

2006
The last Leadbeater’s Possum held in captivity at Healesville Sanctuary dies (it originated from Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve).

2009
Black Saturday bushfires destroy more than 40% of Leadbeater’s Possum (LBP) habitat and population numbers in the wild are halved to an estimated 1000 individuals. The population of LBP at Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve is found to be ‘genetically divergent’ to the highland populations confirming they are a naturally occurring population. There had previously been some uncertainty as to whether the population had been introduced.

2011
Melbourne Museum mounts a temporary display of Leadbeater’s Possums, which includes the burnt remains of a nest box collected after the Black Saturday fires, reveals the efforts before and after Black Saturday to secure this significant animal.

2012
A new captive breeding program begins at Healesville Sanctuary. Leadbeater’s Possums (LBP) from Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve (YNCR) are sourced as ‘founders’ for the program. 1000’s of years separation from the Central Highlands LBP population has meant the YNCR population (lowland LBP) is now known to be genetically distinct. Approximately 40 lowland LBP’s are known to remain in the wild – all at YNCR.

2013
Professor David Lindenmayer (ANU) calls on the Victorian Government to expand the current Leadbeater’s Possum (LBP) Reserve System to include all LBP remaining habitat in the Central Highlands in a new Great Forest National Park.

2015
Federal Conservation Status of the Leadbeater’s Possum is uplisted to Critically Endangered.

2016
draft National Recovery Plan for Leadbeater’s Possum has been completed, with the public comment period having closed 20 May 2016. Once finalised, it is proposed to replace the initial (1997) recovery plan. Note: information current at 10/12/2022.

2019
Federal Conservation Status of the Leadbeater’s Possum is confirmed as Critically Endangered following an unsuccessful application by an industry lobby group to reverse this determination.

2020-22
There has been no success to date in the captive breeding program of Leadbeater’s Possums (LBP), initiated in 2012. Translocations are trialled to spread risk of extinction from bushfire or disease. “But the alternative is we just monitor them until extinction,” says Dr Dan Harley, Zoos Victoria. “We’re at the point where the risk of doing nothing is greater than the risk of getting it wrong.” In late 2020, eleven LBPs from Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve (YNCR) are taken to a large patch of forest at Wallaby Creek. Cats had likely taken seven and on New Year’s Day 2021 the decision was made to launch an emergency evacuation to catch and return the remaining four possums to the relative safety of YNCR. In Nov 2021, a second translocation site was selected in suitable habitat near Mansfield. In late 2021, YNCR was renamed Yellingbo Nature Conservation Area (YNCA). In 2022, the eight pioneering settlers are still there, and there are babies. In Mar 2022, only 33 lowland LBP remain in the wild at YNCA, clinging on in a strip of forest just 4km long and about 100 metres wide. Modelling suggests that with such a small number left in the wild – and with no success breeding them in captivity – the lowland LBP’s will be extinct within a couple of decades. Two family groups with five individuals from the YNCA LBP population of 33 individuals are relocated to the translocation site, joining the first group. Theoretically, this new site could support up to 100 LBPs.

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